Philip Morris Sees the Light


After decades of sticking their heads in the sand about the hazards of tobacco, Philip Morris has found a new tactic -- promoting the benefits to society of premature deaths from smoking. A study produced for them by Arthur D. Little, one of the "foremost management consulting firms," found the early deaths of smokers has "positive effects" for society that more than counteract the medical costs of treating smoking induced cancer, etc.

This path-breaking research was limited to smoking in Czechoslovakia. It found that in 1999, despite health care costs for dying smokers, the government still had a net gain of $147.1 million from smoking. From these figures, the American Legacy Foundation calculated the Czech government saved $1,227 per dead smoker. That's a pretty good return, as Philip Morris proudly informed government leaders in the Czech Republic.

Philip Morris has since come in for a flood of criticism and has publicly apologized for the conclusions, which is too bad, because the report makes fascinating reading. It is, as the authors state, "the results of the exercise of our best professional judgement." (Imagine what we'd get if they were having an off day).

What makes the study such a model of American scholarship is the care taken to leave no stones unturned. Not only did the Arthur D. Little researchers find out precisely how much early deaths save on health care expenses, housing for the elderly, social security and pensions (something we all wanted to know), they also uncovered savings from premature deaths in areas we non-experts would never dream to look.

Who would think to look at the effect of smoking deaths on unemployment? These authors did, and they found that "replacing those who die early... leads to savings in social benefits paid to the unemployed and in costs of re-training." A wonderful gift to society by smokers.

But it gets even better. The researchers, with obvious relish, note that when a smoker dies prematurely, the savings to the state for that year "is only one part of the positive effect." There's more to come. You need to look at all the other years the smoker would have lived had she or he not smoked, because, we are told, "the savings will therefore influence the public finance balance of smoking in future years(!)" It's a gift that keeps on giving.

Lest you think that Philip Morris is alone in recognizing the benefits to society of early deaths, know that they are in good company. Four years ago, the state of Alabama arrived at similar conclusions in a report by their Attorney General that escaped public notice. This story was covered, as far as I know, only by the Opelika-Auburn News.

Alabama Attorney General Bill Pryor found that "smoking-related health costs are not excessive, because smokers die young." This breathtaking conclusion was the result of an entire 89-page report (with footnotes, I'm told). The Alabama study apparently was just the tip of the iceberg, because it pointed to even more studies that "show taxpayers actually save money in costs for nursing homes, insurance, pensions, and Social Security benefits because smokers die earlier than non-smokers."

For those of you inclined to think that reasoning in Alabama takes its own course, know that State Farm Insurance followed the same line in a study defending Sports Utility Vehicles. Their researchers reported: "Sport utility vehicles may actually save insurers money in a few accidents, by killing people who might otherwise have survived with serious injuries. Severe injuries tend to produce larger settlements than deaths." Sounds like public thanks are owed to SUV makers, too.

Obviously, great minds work in the same circles.

It was unfortunate Philip Morris has had to suffer such bad publicity. The company, famous for its slogan "todays teenager is tomorrows potential regular customer," has been working hard to spruce up its image. This past year it spent $100 million on charity alone. Of course, it spent $150 million telling people about their charitable giving, but this 3-to-2 ratio is actually quite good for an American corporation.

The Philip Morris report is no isolated travesty of reason. The language of the study, with all of its "objectivity," "quantification," "demographic data," and "statistical analysis," would be at home in any university or corporation. It's the same brand of impersonal, machine-like reasoning. This is our culture speaking.

We can become so abstract, so disconnected, we cease to live on the planet. We all can. That's why I suggest the executives who brought us the Marlboro Man quit apologizing. Take your case to the people. Be aggressive. Reach out to the families of dying smokers. Get to know their names, their friends, their family stories. Then explain to them the "positive effects" of their approaching fates. Bring lots of charts. Lots.

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